KNOXVILLE – The box score from Tennessee’s 77-50 thumping of former nemesis Oakland on Monday night was loaded with all sorts of encouraging signs of progress, including this little nugget that wasn’t lost on the Vol coaches:
Kenny Hall: nine points, 11 rebounds, two assists, no turnovers, one blocked shot in 29 minutes.
As he headed to his post-game radio show, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin nodded his head when asked if Hall’s near double-double was huge for a team that is still trying to learn how to play without Jeronne Maymon, the senior preseason All-Southeastern Conference power forward whose balky knee continues to keep him on the sidelines.
“If (Hall) can get nine, 10 rebounds a night,” that’s big for us,” Martin said.
Then Martin footnoted that comment, as he often does. This is not a man who gets too high or too low about anything.
“If he can consistently do that, we’re in good shape,” Martin said. “I’m happy with his production tonight, but he needs to do that consistently.”
Pardon Martin if he’s still cautious about Hall as it relates to consistency. We’re talking about a player who, for an undisclosed violation of team rules, got himself suspended and missed the last month of the 2011-12 season. Then, after proclaiming himself a changed man, Hall was benched during the Vols’ August tour of Italy for non-hustle.
By all accounts, Hall has been working hard on that reliability issue of his. He’s put in countless hours in the gym, under the supervision of coaches and on his own, working to make himself an inside-outside threat. Hall has become a reliable defender, especially on ball screens, one of the most vocal players on the court, and, apparently, a double-figure rebounder when he puts his mind to it.
“I think I’ve done pretty good with it,” Hall said of his time in the Vols’ starting lineup. “The only games I didn’t play so well were in Puerto Rico; the last two games I was in foul trouble. Other than that I think I’ve done a great job helping this team win.”
Hall knows why he’s in the starting lineup. Without Maymon, a player capable of erupting for 30 points or 20 rebounds on a given night, in the lineup, Hall has had to try and replace some of that output. He hasn’t felt any pressure in filling in for an all-conference player.
“No pressure at all,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with the way I’m playing. I’ve just got to stay consistent and keep snagging these boards, scoring when I need to score and keep playing defense.”
After Monday’s game, the Oakland coaching staff was an amiable bunch, obviously disappointed after being so handily dispatched but realistic about a schedule that has taken the Grizzlies from Boise, Idaho to Lafayette, La., from Pittsburgh to East Lansing, Mich. and then to Knoxville.
“We played six games in 16 days,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We flew from Louisiana to Boise to Pittsburgh to Michigan State to here. That’s a lot of travel to put on a group of young kids. That many games in that many days.
“We haven’t practiced in two weeks. It caught up to us. There was going to be collateral damage to that schedule. I knew it would be somewhere, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be (in Knoxville). But I’m not going to make excuses. They beat the hell out of us.”
Given that Oakland has played Pittsburgh and Michigan State, the inevitable question was asked of Kampe and some of his assistants. How do the Vols stack up?
“I can tell you this,” assistant coach Darren Sorenson said, “Michigan State doesn’t have anybody like (Tennessee’s Jarnell) Stokes, a guy that big who can score in the paint.”
“I think you throw a blanket over all three teams,” Kampe said, meaning there’s no discernible difference between them.
Kampe did notice a difference between this Tennessee team and the one that lost at Oakland a year ago.
“They’re much better than last year’s team,” Kampe said. “Much better. I think they guarded much better than last year’s team guarded. Now two years ago, we played Tennessee when they were ranked No. 7 in the country and they had just beaten Pittsburgh. That was a helluva team, and obviously what happened (allegations that former coach Bruce Pearl lied to the NCAA about alleged recruiting violations) affected that team.
“I don’t think this team is as good as that team was when we played them. But they may be before it’s over.”
Kampe says Martin’s influence is obvious.
“Oh yeah, he said. “How hard they play. The defensive pressure. I mean, they made a statement tonight to us, and we took it. They had something for us.”